What do Burning Man, Outdoor Voices, and Culture Amp have in common besides their exponential growth and popularity? If you don’t think much of anything, I can see why. People who gather in the middle of the desert, athletic apparel made for #doingthings, and a platform that enables businesses to manage their people data appear to have little to nothing in common. Yet, they all grew their brand exponentially with one common customer-centric growth strategy: community marketing. While the word ‘community’ sounds a bit overused in the marketing realm, people have — and always will have — a fundamental need for connection. 

In a world where large companies aim to own small brands’ identity and customer data, connecting deeply with customers is fundamental to the survival of direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands. Building a thriving community around your brand and giving customers value, whether they’ve made a purchase or not, is one of the best ways to cut to the front.

Let’s go over what community marketing is, why it works, and how to get started with building a community around your brand.

What Exactly is Community Marketing?

Community marketing is a brand growth strategy centered around bringing customers together over a topic that is aligned with, or directly related to, a brand in an engaging and non-intrusive way that puts customers first. TL;DR it’s about them, not you.

To really understand what community marketing is and how it fuels brand growth, we need to define what a community is and learn a bit about the psychology behind the human need for connection.

The 3 Key Components of a Community

Whether they realize this or not, all thriving communities have three key components. When beginning your community-building journey, it’s incredibly helpful to understand what these three components are and the precursors needed to get to them:

  1. Key Community Component: A group of people…
    Precursor: Having a common interest is a precursor to having a group of people.
  2. Key Community Component: Who cares about each other…
    Precursor: Coming together over their shared interest is a precursor to the group of people feeling like they care about each other.
  3. Key Community Component: And feel they belong together.
    Precursor: Working together to achieve goals related to their common interest, is a precursor to a group of people feeling like they belong together.

When you’re starting the process of building a community around your brand, start by identifying who your customers are and what they care about that is related to your brand. Then come up with regularly cadenced ongoing ways to bring them together and meaningfully connect.

The Psychology Behind the Human Need for Community

Think back to a time when you experienced feelings of rejection or loneliness. Perhaps you didn’t get that job you prepped like crazy for, or maybe you’ve been ghosted by someone you were steadily dating for months… if you’re a human (which I sure hope you are), you likely felt terrible.

Humans have an innate need for connection, and there’s a growing body of psychological research that digs into how deep that need lies. According to Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D. and Neuroscience Lab Director at UCLA, more than power and other intrinsic incentives — like money and fame — people’s brains are rewarded most when connecting meaningfully with others.

So much so, that our brains literally start to deteriorate when we endure ongoing isolation. Chronic social isolation can even lead to a decrease in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s responsible for learning and memory. From our family and friends to our neighborhood and our team at work, social ties are critical to our happiness and success.

For marketers, this means that there is so much more to driving brand growth and customer engagement than clicks and conversions.

How Community Marketing Fuels Brand Growth

Now that we know a bit about how much of human behavior, personal growth, and success are driven by our innate human need for connection, we can start to understand how building a thriving community around a brand fuels its growth.

To see what this looks like in practice and how it works, let’s look at two D2C brands who have knocked their customer marketing programs out of the park:

1. Outdoor Voices: Building a Community of People Who are #doingthings

We’ve talked about Outdoor Voices’ community marketing strategy on the blog before, and yes, it’s so good that it’s worth highlighting again. In just a few short weeks, their hashtag, #doingthings, has climbed roughly 20% on Instagram from being used over 130,000 times to over 160,000 times.

In running this customer-centric community program that spans everything from their social media strategy and their website copy, to the events they host in stores and the apparel itself, OV effectively gets their customers (and people who they’d like to be customers) excited about doing the things they love while encouraging others to do the same.

2. Kitty and Vibe: Building a Community That’s Part of Everything They Design and Do

The bikini (and now one-piece, too) trailblazer Kitty and Vibe makes more than cute reversible swimsuits with hot prints and cool solids. After launching just over a year ago by Cameron Armstrong, Kitty and Vibe’s patent-pending innovative sizing model has been touted by Teen Vogue and Forbes as the future of swimwear.

The secret behind Kitty and Vibe’s success? You guessed it — community marketing. The community Cameron has built (and is growing) around Kitty is dynamic, meaningful, and fun. It drives brand growth by tying online and offline engagement programs into a cohesive and unique customer-centric experience. Here’s how:

  • Online: 
    • Spotify Playlists: Customers can follow Kitty and Vibe on Spotify and get access to highly-curated playlists for “vibes” that go with their “Kitty” swimwear.  
    • Instagram Product Feedback: Cameron sources all new designs for Kitty swimwear directly from Kitty and Vibe’s Instagram community. Customers vote on everything from style to patterns and colors — making the products all the more personal. 
    • Instagram Shop and Website: Bringing community members from Instagram to their website, Kitty and Vibe puts user-generated content on their website’s homepage and makes the images shoppable.
  • Offline: 
    • Community Model Program: Inclusivity is at Kitty’s core. In walking the talk, the brand takes it a step further than just a touch-up-free model policy to additionally having a community-sourced modeling program. Qualifications needed to model? To be “comfortable in front of a camera and be any age, style, and size. “No experience necessary, just kindness and your beautiful self.” 
    • Pool Parties: Yup, you read that right the first time. Customers can put on their Kitty swimsuit and meet fellow community members face-to-face at body-positivity pool parties. Kitty calls the events “Parties for EveryBOOTY.” These branded events are where the “Vibes” come to life, and community members can get together. One attendee noted, “I came here alone, and I was a little nervous, but I have made about six friends since being here.”

Bringing the community into everything it does and creating amazing and engaging experiences, Kitty and Vibe fuels its growth by keeping customers at the heart of every one of their community-marketing initiatives.

Key Takeaway: Build a Community Around Your Brand

As Outdoor Voices and Kitty and Vibe have demonstrated, building a community around a brand fires up growth and builds long-term relationships with customers. D2C businesses that invest time and resources into community marketing efforts see real growth. According to a recent report, community marketing tactics generate an average of 6,469% ROI.

Building a community around your brand is one of the best ways to give customers value at every stage of their journey, design better products, and increase overall customer lifetime value (CLV). Marketing strategies that aren’t prioritizing community marketing are missing out big on brand growth and customer advocacy opportunities.

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